Sam Harris on Whether Religion Really Does Make Everything Worse
Yascha Mounk and Sam Harris discuss whether America's rapid secularization has been a force for good or ill.
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, author, and the host of the Making Sense podcast. He rose to prominence as a member of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, which also included Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Sam Harris discuss the intellectual case for atheism; why both left and right have become more extreme in recent years; and the prospects of a more rational politics in the near future.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I want to start by revisiting one of the topics that really made you prominent. You were one of the Four Horsemen of atheism. Just what is the intellectual case for atheism, and why should we care about it?
Sam Harris: The epistemological case for it is pretty simple; it's the same as the case for not believing in Zeus or Poseidon or Isis or any of the other of the thousands of dead gods that are interred in the graveyard we call “mythology.” The atheist just goes one god further, and consigns the God of Abraham to the same. I mean, these are clearly inventions of people, and they don't purport to be. The God of Abraham is explicit in the Bible and in the Quran that the document you're reading is the Word of God, and that it is not of human manufacture. And it's just obvious that that can't be. You look at the books, and there's just no way they're the product of omniscience. They betray their merely human origins on every page and what they don't show (which would have been trivially easy for a god to put in there) is a single sentence that announces its supernatural provenance. Just think of how easy it would be for an omniscient being to write a book, or even a single page of text, that proved that it could not be of human origin. But rather than give us insights into mathematics and science, computation, medicine, or anything else that we care about at the moment, it tells us how to sacrifice goats and how to keep slaves.
I'm not saying there's no wisdom in those books. But there was wisdom in many other books in that period. We're living in a world that is shattered over competing claims about literature. It’s every bit as absurd as a world in which people sought to pass laws infringing on the rights of their neighbors, or to start wars or to commit terrorist atrocities based on rival interpretations of the plays of Shakespeare: there’s the Hamlet cult that's going against the Lear cult, and they're literally willing to die and let their children die over differences of opinion about those various texts. It would be insane. The world we live in is every bit as insane as all that—and yet, we've acclimated to it. We cease to notice it.
I'm not denying that there are extraordinary experiences that are testified to in some of these books, or that the transformation of the human mind is possible. Unconditional love and self-transcendence is possible, and we should be interested in it. But we should be investigating it and experiencing it and talking about it in 21st century terms.
If there were some kind of divine mind that could intervene in our affairs whenever it likes—well, one thing you can know about this mind is that it's not moral, in any sense that we would want it to be. It's certainly not compassionate. It wasn't of much help when 500 million people were killed by smallpox in the 20th century. It wasn't much help during the Holocaust. You have all these religious people thanking God for various invisible interventions: you get a diagnosis of cancer, but you get this miraculous remission, etc. But think of all the people who didn't get better, and think of all the good work this god of yours has not done in the lives of others who are just as deserving, or even more deserving, of compassion than you were.
Just think of all the children who cannot be accused of having done anything wrong, who were annihilated casually moments after birth, or in the first years of their lives. You need only one horror story like that—and of course, there are millions—to disprove this notion that an all-seeing, omnibenevolent God is watching over us.
Mounk: Let me move to what I'm in some ways more interested in, which is the political implications of religion.
I have become quite convinced that there are certain basic aspects of human psychology which drive our behavior; that we are, as Jonathan Haidt would say, “groupish”: we tend to form groups very easily, often treat members of those groups with great compassion and great altruism. But we are also capable of treating anybody who's not a member of our group with incredible cruelty and nastiness. It's not that clear to me that an absence of religion would lessen human conflict or suffering, because with our infinite ability to invent lines—to distinguish “my” group from “your” group—we would simply be driven to give more importance to ethnic differences, more importance to ideological and political differences, and so on. Do you think that if people for the last two thousand years hadn't believed in these different religions, would we have had fewer conflicts? Or perhaps just different conflicts?
Harris: Well, a simple way to answer that question is to just imagine what it would take to improve our religions. Just imagine modifying the Ten Commandments so as to produce a wiser, less divisive ideology. Just swap out the graven image clause for something truly useful, like ‘Don't keep slaves.” That would have closed the door theologically to slavery, whereas the door is wide open. Even Jesus doesn't condemn it. The Quran could have been a document that assiduously spelled out the political equality of men and women. But it doesn't do that, and women the world over are paying the price for that: women in Iran are protesting, fighting, in many cases dying, to carve out some space of equality for themselves.
We have, over the course of many centuries of smashing religion against secular ethics and scientific rationality, taught generations of people that being a true fundamentalist just isn't worth it. Fundamentalists in the West have relaxed their hold on religious literalism. And whenever people don't do that, you have something like the Taliban or the Islamic State. I don't think we're condemned not to make progress in overcoming our native tribalism and xenophobia—because we have already made immense progress, even under the shadow of these divisive and tribal identities. Scientists were literally dying trying to interrogate the nature of the world. The house arrest of Galileo was one of the final moments where you had a bunch of glassy-eyed religious maniacs who won't look through his telescope. We've made progress since then. And so, the beliefs could have been much better. We could have had something like enlightenment-based, secular rationality, centuries before we did.
I take your point that religion is a very powerful piece of software for us to enshrine our groupishness. There's certainly an argument that religion allows strangers in groups larger than Dunbar's number to cohere readily in large social organizations. So, it's easy to see how there could have been a cultural evolution within which religion proved a very durable feature, where you prove your in-group status by making costly sacrifices in the same direction.
But that’s not the only conceivable version of that kind of trust. I think what you want are people whose convictions scale with good reasons and good evidence and good arguments, and intuitions that are tutored by intellectual honesty and honest collisions with the opinions, so that there's a certain kind of humility and circumspection and discomfort with illogic, and a desire for consistency. This whole toolkit that we’ve developed is eroding in various places, and not just religious places. We've got this postmodern effort that's happening over in “Wokistan” that is making everything seem upside down, to a degree that's insane, divisive and intolerable. And it really resembles a new religion. That's what's so awful about wokeness. It's essentially intellectual dishonesty, plus a willingness to sacrifice obviously innocent people as scapegoats.
Mounk: There are many scholars who claim that the foundations of liberalism and democracy are ultimately religious, and that a lot of the beliefs that ground the American Republic—a lot of the beliefs which ground human rights—actually are religious, or a kind of secular version of Christianity which is always trying to hide its true origins. What do you make of that line of argument? Can we ground a deep belief in these important political values without recourse, explicit or implicit, to religion?
Harris: I think we obviously can. I think people draw the wrong lesson from the observation that the roots of much of what we value are religious. If you go back far enough, virtually all of those good things, most of the time, were accomplished by people who believed in God. And so what lessons should you draw from that? I say there's no lesson to draw from that, because there was simply no-one else to do the job. You could say that every bridge that was ever built was, for the most part, built by people of faith. For the longest time, every scientific experiment was done by somebody who professed some belief in God. But the question is, are those beliefs intrinsic to the enterprise and essential to it? Or are they just adding friction to all the good things, too? We got the idea of democracy out of Athens, and there was a lot of Zeus-talk there, right? Let's bring back Zeus? No. It’s just a waste of time.
Mounk: I want to move on to a more contemporary version of the political concerns I have. A lot of the pushback against atheism had a political context where—with a very strong evangelical movement, and George W. Bush in the White House—Christianity felt very politically powerful in the United States, and there was good reason to be concerned.
But we're now almost two decades on from those debates. And the political moment feels very different. I've seen people make the argument (though I don't think there's any really conclusive work on whether this is true) that actually, the relatively rapid secularization of American society over the last 15 or 20 years has a lot to do with some of our problems today. That the people who suffer deaths of despair, or who are addicted to painkillers, are less likely to be religious. That people who continue to have some real religious links actually have some kind of community, which acts as a force for social stabilization. That actually, a lot of the raw energy behind Donald Trump and the MAGA movement often doesn’t come from the people who are embedded in a real church community (even if they claim to have some kind of Christian evangelical belief), but, by and large, comes from people who are more isolated and therefore more angry. And of course, as you alluded to, John McWhorter and others argue that wokeness is a kind of quasi-religion.
Are you still sanguine that a further retreat of religion would help to make our politics more harmonious and sane? Or has it turned out that religious beliefs, irrational as they might be, have provided an important social kit, and that its absence is precisely what's driven the deep cultural division of our country today?
Harris: Well, we clearly have a lot of problems. I would not deny that. And some of those problems could be compounded certainly in specific people, or in any given generation. People are attached to a belief in Santa Claus, and when you tell them there is no Santa Claus, they suffer. But then the question is: Is there really a Santa Claus-shaped hole in someone's life that's indelible, that needs to be filled with a Santa Claus-shaped object at some point in the future? Or can we grow up? Can we make progress that gives us greater capacities and greater understanding and a greater basis for love and compassion and self-transcendence and solidarity and community and everything else? Community is a very good thing, and people who don't have it, or who have lost it, are suffering. That is a problem that requires a remedy. It could be that we're in this kind of valley between two high spots, where we descended a relatively mediocre peak on this landscape in search of a higher one. But we've had to—we've had to go downhill a bit in order to then climb higher to some other part of the landscape. So, it's not that progress is just monotonically pleasant, where things just get better and better and better and better with every increment of change. I don't imagine that. We could be paying some kind of price for secularizing rapidly. That's true.
And certainly any individual, again, could feel like he or she has paid a price for losing their faith. God really does do a lot of work for people who have faith, especially surrounding the phenomenon of death and bereavement—when you're contemplating your own death, or the death of someone you love, and you sincerely believe that death is an illusion and that not only do you not lose anything of importance when you die, but that person gets everything they want, and they get it for eternity. You will be reunited with your child or your mother, whoever it is, in a few short years, and you'll be on the right hand of Jesus and there's just no problem; and this universe is set up to reward and console you in the end (that is, if you espouse the right opinions while alive). We can talk about how perverse that moral worldview is in the end.
But I would add here that my big-picture concern—and really the proper lens through which to view all of this—is that all we have, at any moment in time, is human conversation with which to orient ourselves collectively. We're faced with the truly open-ended challenge of cooperating in the face of uncertainty with eight billion strangers. And the question is: What are the tools by which we can navigate that situation, given that all we have is persuasion or force? It's patently obvious to me that you can't appeal to non-negotiable, ancient dogmas for which there is no evidence and which are not universally subscribed to. At bottom, there are things that a Christian and Muslim can’t agree about—the question of the divinity of Jesus, say, which the Christians really do care about, and the Muslims really do repudiate. That's a problem, right? Those are not the best parameters for a conversation that is going to engineer real open-ended solutions to our problems. Nature is going to be throwing up pandemics, and we may throw up some ourselves through malfeasance in various labs, or deliberately through terrorism. And we're going to have a host of other problems.
Mounk: But how much should we blame religion for bad things in the past, and how much hope or fear should we have for its decline? That's an important question whether or not you think that there's some meaningful way to affect it. Should we be hopeful for more secularization in the United States, if it might have these really bad political consequences?
Harris: I think we should all be increasingly allergic to dogmatism. Especially when the dogmas are leading to needless human suffering and division. Again, it's useful to look at specific religious or political ideas and ask the question,”Do we keep this? If we had a choice, would we want to reinvent this crazy idea?” Take your pick: “homosexuality is immoral.” That comes to us courtesy of religion. Maybe it has older roots, still, but it's certainly been enshrined in various religions. How useful is it? How good is our world, how improved is it socially and ethically, that millions and millions of people insist that this dogma is true? They think, “God has insisted it’s true.” And if God had insisted otherwise, presumably they would believe that. You could imagine, had the ancient Greeks gotten their hands on the Bible at the crucial moment, they might have relaxed some of that homophobia, and gay people through the generations would have lived in a different world. Had that been the case, you wouldn't have had Oscar Wilde thrown in prison for being gay. That would be a net good. If we could do this piecemeal and just strip out specific dogmas, I think we could do it wisely. And we're right to want to do that. In fact, we've been doing that, politically, over time.
The problem is, we're doing it with one hand tied behind our back, because the people—even the people who are doing it, quite heroically, for the most part—are still attached to these religious myths and these religious books and these religious identities. Our mutual friend Andrew Sullivan has done as much as anyone (and perhaps more than anyone) in American society to get us into the endzone where we now have gay marriage as the law of the land. But he's a believing Catholic. He and I have debated these issues, and he's brilliant. But to me, anyone who is forced to be on the other side of this debate based on their religious attachment loses 30 IQ points. The ballast they're carrying—they just can't get it up the hill. It would be better had God not said that homosexuality was a sin, in the various ways he said it in both the Old and New Testament. And there are a hundred very important examples like that, where we could make our world a better place and edit these books, if we could edit them—which most modern cosmopolitan, well-educated religious people do simply through their disregard of those passages, right? People effectively edit the books by just deciding not to pay attention to the parts they don't like. But I'm just saying we can be more intellectually honest than that, and recognize that all we've got is human conversation.
The question is: Do we want a 21st century conversation where we avail ourselves of all the useful concepts and ideas? And we can take what we like from Shakespeare, and what we like from Pericles, and what we like from St. Paul, and what we like from Jesus, and what we like from the Quran, and consider it a bequest from prior generations of merely human, but still fairly incandescent wisdom, which we can improve upon, hopefully, as we push into the unknown future.
Mounk: I'm going to move on from religion, and try to understand how you think about this cultural moment. I'm struck, thinking about the 15 years that I have now spent in the United States, how much the basic intellectual lay of the land has been transformed. And it seems to me that the two fundamental changes have been: on the one hand, the transformation of the American right. The Republican Party of George W. Bush was not to be celebrated in every respect, and had many flaws. But the Republican Party of somebody like Donald Trump is just a fundamentally bigger threat to American democracy and to decency. And then, on the other hand, there’s been the sort of strange transformation of the left, in which this sort of single-minded focus on identity and the marginalization of ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual gender groups, has taken center place in a way that wasn't the case 15 years ago. It has sometimes—not always, but sometimes—gone hand in hand with a real embrace and tolerance for pretty illiberal ideas. So, how worried are you about each of these forces? And is this an intellectual moment that's going to pass, or is it setting up the battle lines for the politics of the next 25 or 50 years?
Harris: Well, I'm not really in the game of making predictions across any time horizon. But the one prediction I feel like I can make is that if Trump, or anyone sufficiently Trumpist, runs in 2024 for the presidency, the woke problem doesn't go away anytime soon. If we had a normal Republican candidate for 2024, I feel that wokeness—the moral derangement of the left—has reached some kind of tipping point, and the vapors would dissipate on their own. But the craziness of Trumpistan is so provocative, and so seemingly justifying of the craziness of the woke. They mutually create one another at this point.
Mounk: I agree that one of the reasons why woke ideas became so hegemonic—not just on the American left but in some mainstream institutions—was that when Trump was in office, it both seemed to justify the most extreme claims, and it made it very toxic to argue against any left position, because you would be seen as running interference for Trump. And conversely, I think one of the reasons why it's so hard to beat Donald Trump is that so many Americans look at what's happened on the left and the kinds of abuses that happened in some mainstream institutions and say, “Well, I don't trust these guys. I may as well hold my nose and vote for Trump.”
When you take some of the rhetoric of the far left on the topic of race seriously, they talk about the historical effects of racism, and structural racism. This should actually allow them to see that the biggest problem is not ongoing forms of active discrimination; rather, one way of explaining the distinction is precisely to say, “Look, ongoing discrimination exists, but it's relatively minor compared to the problem of the long-term effects of people, for centuries, being enslaved and excluded from society.” I'm always struck by the fact that this is an argument that actually should be a left-wing argument; it's an argument about the enduring impact of the worst chapters of American history and the way it’s continuing to shape the present. That's actually very convincing. But instead, we get a much less intellectually rigorous account of the nature of the problem, which then easily results in people thinking that if only we let Robin DiAngelo loose on every boardroom in America, that would solve the problem.
But a little while ago, it sounded as though you were saying: if only Trump or one of his followers doesn't win in 2024—if only the threat from the anti-democratic right would subside a little bit—then it feels like we could be at a turning point where people are willing to reject some of the more irrational ideas that have somehow been able to capture mainstream institutions in the last five or seven years. So, how optimistic or pessimistic should we be?
Harris: Well, I don't know how hopeful that prediction is. It does feel somehow contaminated by hope. And I don't know how influenced it is by my just having paid so much attention to this issue, and gotten so tired of it, that I just feel like there's no way this mania is going to continue for that much longer. I do feel like more and more people behind closed doors have broken the spell.
Meanwhile, what's wrong with the far right is so obvious that it almost requires no discussion: what's wrong with being a neo-Nazi, or a true xenophobe? It's not ethically or intellectually interesting to try to parse. And that's why I spend very little time thinking about it. But I am worried about the far right, and I'm worried about the possibility of far-right violence, and I'm worried about the weird variants in Trumpistan that are not quite necessarily far right in all the usual ways, but are profoundly undemocratic and profoundly distorted by bad ideas.
But the far left, and its influence on the rest of culture and its influence on our core institutions is far harder to understand, and it's far more confusing to well-educated and well-intentioned people. It requires a conversation to get to many ordinary liberals, who have day jobs and don't spend all their time in the weeds of Twitter. It's harder to talk about, and yet it is no less dishonest; Ibram X. Kendi is no less dishonest than some analogous lunatic on the right, and he won't debate anyone who could mop the floor with him and reveal his dishonesty. He won't talk to Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes, Thomas Chatterton Williams, or any of these guys who have his number. He has built a temple of white guilt for himself and other priests in this temple. It's a good gig, and it works at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Our core institutions from The New York Times to Harvard, to our scientific journals to Hollywood to the media that's not right wing—all of it is being vitiated by public displays of dishonesty and masochism and frank stupidity that should be intolerable to all of us. And I think it is growing intolerable. And if we could just get Trump out of the picture, I think people on the left could begin to be publicly honest about it. Because privately, they're being honest about it. In private, they see the world as I do. Just to take one claim that cuts through the morass here: You can go further, and not only say that there's not a lot of active racism keeping qualified black people out of good jobs and educational opportunities and all the rest of it; you can also say that, at the same level of qualification, it is a positive advantage to be black at this point, in almost any part of society that would be truly desirable to a qualified candidate, whether you're looking for an educational opportunity, or you want to work in media, tech or in a Fortune 500 company. Being a black applicant, or being a person of color more generally, at the same level of qualification—America is your oyster at this moment. This is just a fact. You talk to anyone at any of these companies; you talk to anyone in Ivy League admissions, in medical schools, any nonprofit; they are desperate to hire qualified people of color. And if you're white or Asian, you're at a positive disadvantage, generally speaking. It is a fact, and basically everyone knows it.
And so, what's happening on the left is that you have a generation of activists determined to lie about all of that, determined to say that not only is that not true, but the opposite is true, and racism is the cause: for example, that the reason why there are not more black cardiologists in your local hospital is because of racism. They claim that the reason why black people don’t make up 13% of everyone in good places in our society, is racism today. And it's just not true. The opposite is true. It is just a fact that Harvard has to have a racist policy against Asians now in order to meet its affirmative action goals. It's the lying that is so divisive, and the gaslighting. And again, I don't want to be read as somebody who's not concerned about and sympathetic to the very real disparities in our society. I want these disparities to be remedied. And the question is how to do that. But finding racists where no racists exist, rolling into the board of a company that is desperate to hire qualified people of color (and feels exactly as you and I do about the divisions in our society) and calling everyone racist and taking them to task for their white privilege—that is just a symptom of a moral panic, and it is leading to cultic behavior that is mirroring the cultic behavior of the right, and the personality cult of Trump. And it's driving everyone crazy.
Mounk: I want to end on a topic that I’m less comfortable with, and that's meditation. You are a great evangelist of meditation. You talk powerfully about its effects. I've never properly tried to meditate. Why am I wrong about this? Why should I go and download your app or download some other kind of app or go to some kind of meeting or retreat and actually try to engage in this practice?
Harris: Meditation is the method by which you pay more attention to your experience. In the morning, you wake up from a dream which you dimly remember, and then you're chased out of bed by your thoughts, and you think, think, think throughout the day. And the structure of this thinking is somewhat paradoxical. In many cases, you're literally talking to someone who isn't there. You're telling yourself things you already know, you're replaying conversations that happened, or almost happened, or may yet happen. You're only dimly aware of your present experience through this cacophony of discursive thought. And all of that feels like me, as the subject and center of my experience.
Once you discover how to do it, meditation is actually not a tool, or a practice, or anything you're adding to your life. Meditation is nothing more than ceasing to do something you're doing helplessly now. It's ceasing to be distracted by thought, and it's ceasing to be identified with each passing thought; to notice thought itself as an appearance in consciousness. When you can step back and just notice thoughts as thoughts and notice what the mind is like prior to their arising, and in the very midst of their arising, then the mind becomes a very different place; it becomes much more expansive. You begin to notice that there's a freedom, even in the midst of struggle or stress. You can solve your basic problem of, “How can I be in the world in a way that is truly fulfilling without actually changing the world?” I'm not saying that there aren't projects worth pursuing. We spent this whole conversation talking about immense social projects that we both desperately want to pursue, and there's no question that life can get better in all kinds of material and social ways. But there's a psychological layer to this which produces so much that ails us, and which is solved by recognizing that virtually all of your hours of suffering are the product of thought and identification with thought. It's a suffering born out of the past and your fears about the future; and the mechanism by which that is doled out to you in the present is thinking without knowing that you're thinking. Meditation is nothing other than being able to wake up from that dream.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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